Marriage commitments in context
While Berger and Kellner’s idea that marriage is a transition where ‘two strangers come together and redefine themselves’ may once have seemed unproblematic, today, when it is common for couples to have lived together (often for a relatively long time) before marriage, this statement seems rather antiquated. Marriage nowadays can involve couples who have a substantial knowledge of each other, who have tested their commitment and who are more-or-less fully incorporated into each other’s lives. This was certainly the case for many of our couples. Almost all of the couples had lived together before formalising the relationship, and it was the decision to live together (or to buy a property together where this was feasible) that signalled a critical moment of commitment. Given that the length of relationships before ‘marriage’ ranged from less than a year to over seven years, many had what they considered a deep knowledge of their partner and relationship. It was unsurprising therefore that many expected civil partnership to make relatively little difference to their relationships and lives. As Angela (106a) and Nancy (106b) recount:
Nancy: people keep asking us that and ‘if it’s any different’
Angela: I didn’t really think it would be any different
Nancy: I think we are what we are, I don’t think it should change
Angela: […] you don’t know what to say ’cause it’s just like the
In cases like this, formalising the relationship was more often about signalling continuity rather than ‘transition’ or change. The difference that formalising a relationship makes will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 7. We raise it here to signal that in understanding young same-sex marriages, and marriages today more generally, it is less than useful to begin with the notion of marriage as a key life transition, or to begin analyses of marriage by focusing on the decision to marry.
Rather, a more appropriate starting point is the formation of the couple itself. Ultimately, marriage commitments need to be understood in the broader context of the personal histories, relational imaginaries and the perceived choices and constraints that influence couple commitments. One of the striking themes to emerge from our interviews was that while a relationship with a particular partner was seen as a choice, the idea of a committed couple relationship in itself was often not seen as a choice but as a driving desire or even an essential need. This was the case for Linda (117a), who recounted having little choice but to radically disrupt her otherwise complete life so as to meet a partner:
it was only really from the relationship point of view that I felt maybe really I hadn’t got any choice [but to move away from family and friends] because I didn’t know how I was gonna find somebody up here.
The fact that participants like Linda were willing to take such drastic action to meet a potential partner attests to the significance that a couple relationship can have for the individual. In Linda’s case, the hope of finding ‘somebody’ made it worth sacrificing the relational goods she associated with living nearby her family and friends. This seemed to be a large cost indeed. Her quotation expresses the arrival at a ‘point’ in life where the anxiety about not meeting somebody was so unbearable that she was spurred into dramatic action: moving to a new area, getting a new job and making new friendships. Linda clearly sees a non-couple life as a more-or-less incomplete life. While the majority of our interviewees did not tell the kind of dramatic stories that Linda did, many like Fredrick (209a), quoted below, suggested an incomplete or even inauthentic life and self before meeting their partner. Fredrick, recounted the happy – but ‘plastic’ – single life he had lived while actively searching for a life partner:
I had my little plastic apple computer and my little plastic smart car and my little plastic life and I was very happy and […] was sort of just chugging along trying to find Mr Right really.
While the desire for a committed relationship may be partly explained by the enduring ‘ideology’ of the couple, or by the increasing significance of the couple for a sense of ontological security in an increasingly individualised world, this did not make such desire any less powerful. Indeed, the powerful emotional charge and sense of personal yearning that the quotations above communicate underpinned a push to action and agency. To reduce such desires to ideology risks trivialising personal lives as they are experienced. At the same time, it is the case that participants’ accounts displayed little evidence of an engagement with cultural critiques of the primacy of the couple. Rather, partners tended to frame their ‘quests’ in terms of the natural need for love. This need also featured in the biographical accounts of those who denied that they were on a quest:
I’m not saying that I was seeking a relationship […]. But, it was a point that, to be alone, it’s not our, […] Human beings, they need to be, feel that they are loved at some point in their life. And they need to give love to someone.
Radinka (103 a)
In this quotation, the ‘need’ of love is deployed to naturalise the couple as the focus of love. The quest or desire for a loving partnership was not conceived as a choice as such, but in a less critically reflexive way as a natural ‘drive’. Indeed, choice was also often downplayed in accounts of relationship formation that deployed the romantic tropes of ‘fate and destiny’:
Nicole (111b): I did at the time, and still do, feel very lucky that
we met each other in such kind of random circumstances working in a very small business. And just by chance happened to kind of get to know each other and kind of found the person that I’m destined to spend the rest of my life with […] A kind of accident and fate almost.
Barbara (111a): And it’s always, for me, seemed like Nicole kind of
was there at that – exactly the right time because I was – had gone through a most horrific time in my life and then Nicole was there. And that was sort of destiny and meant to be [. ] that was a really crucial […] point in my life that I realised, you know, she’s the one.
It is not necessary to subscribe to Barbara’s belief in destiny to agree that it is notable that she met her partner Nicole at a critical point in Barbara’s life. Barbara puts this down to the uncanny working of fate with respect to love. Several partners put the formation of their current relationships down to the mysterious workings of love, desire and to their mutual recognition of the ‘special’ and distinctive qualities of the other. At the same time, it was clear that they were also at a point where they were ready to commit to a relationship with ‘someone’.
I felt that I had had certain experiences that looking back, meant I was kind of ready for if something did happen I think I was ready for a more serious next stage of life.
Berger and Kellner suggest that, in deciding to marry, ‘individuals have already internalized a degree of readiness to re-define themselves’. Many of our young partners indicated that readiness to commit to a couple relationship was more important than readiness to marry in terms of redefining themselves. As Edith’s comments about being ready for a ‘more serious stage’ of life suggest, many partners associated entering into a committed relationship with a more mature redefinition of themselves. Edith’s comments also point to the fact that while sociologists nowadays are reluctant to talk about ‘life stages’ due to the term’s universalising and normalising implications, young partners themselves regularly deployed the notion of stages in reasoning about their readiness for a committed couple relationship. Partners often cast their entry into their current relationship as a critical stage in their progression into maturity. Maturity itself implied self-awareness. While some saw this as something that came naturally, others saw it as entailing work. As Jan (208a) recounts:
at first there would be the excitement of a new relationship […] after two weeks you get irritated with them, you don’t want them round and you’re ignoring their phone calls […] it wasn’t till I sort of explored more and had more counselling it started to hit home […] I used to try and please a lot of people, I’m a people pleaser.
As Jan’s comments suggest, couple commitments could be linked to self-development through a relationship. Berger and Kellner suggest that ‘[i]n the individual’s biography marriage brings about a decisive phase [that] has a rather different structure from the earlier ones. There the individual was in the main socialised into already existing patterns. Here he actively collaborates rather than passively accommodates himself’ (1964: 13). While we might well challenge this account on the basis of its framing in terms of gender and ‘phases’, and its assumptions of passivity in childhood and ‘adolescence’, we quote it here to underline the self-agency that can be involved in socialisation into the conventions of the couple. This highlights the vital ways in which power works: it is not that partners simply followed social conventions and cultural norms in committing to the couple. Rather, partners like Jan often actively worked towards making themselves ‘couple material’, and by linking the couple relationships to maturity partners actively invested their self-meanings in the couple. At the heart of accounts that linked the formation of current relationships to maturity was the idea of working towards a future. This was rarely cast as a self-project, but rather as a relational one, and more specifically as a couple project. As Trevor (226b) puts it in discussing his attraction to his partner:
he was very cute […] but another thing that attracted me was that also he seemed like a very […] nice bloke […] I made several assumptions which turned out to be true that we had a shared […] we’d gone through […] some rubbish as well […] personally. But I knew that we also had a focus and a direction.
As Mansfield and Collard suggest, the idea that modern marriage commitments are first and foremost love matches obscures the extent to which romance and reason are both significant motives for couple commitments today. This is highlighted in Trevor’s account of his partners’ ‘special’ qualities, but also their shared ‘focus’ and ‘direction’. The point is not that some people formed their relationship on the basis of romance or more rational and instrumental reasons, but rather in most cases partners narrated the formation of their relationships in ways that encompassed romance, rationality and instrumentalism. People could be more-or-less reflective about their motivations for entering into their current relationship, but in the main they were rarely critically reflexive about the couple as the primary focus of their relational commitments. This is no doubt partly linked to ways in which their accounts of their relational imaginaries were ordered to ‘fit’ with their current couple commitment and future plans. At the same time, these current commitments and plans were embedded in experiences of the relationship as it had developed over time, which made it distinctively significant compared to other personal relationships. The entry into civil partnership was often an acknowledgement of this.
Implicit in Berger and Kellner’s account of marriage commitments is the idea that people feel they have more agency in the ‘private world’ than they do in the ‘alien world of public institutions’. The distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ is problematic here – public life does not stop at the front door, and neither does personal life stay at home. The point is that while contemporary couple commitments may be partly symptomatic of an entrenchment from an increasingly alien ‘public’ world or a ‘retreat to intimacy’ (cf. Noys, 2008), they can also be the basis of new kinds of engagement with it. In this sense, many partners described the couple relationship as strengthening their sense of self, confidence in themselves and being supported in their engagements with others and institutions. They variously linked this to trust and relating skills built over time, the rebalancing of work and family commitments, support for their public performance as a parent, unexpected acceptance for who they were, shared ethics, solidity and stability and to material and emotional supports. They emphasised the mutual supports that exited for realising future plans, but above all emphasised the couple as the focus of caring supports:
I found Radinka, after some time I found Radinka quite caring and considering of others. Also I think that was during the time that my father was diagnosed with cancer, and Radinka was quite understanding towards this and very supportive, so I think that’s what really helped me a lot to make a decision that, okay, maybe I can maybe progress with this relationship.
The point is that accounts of developing relationships entailed highly emotional, rational and pragmatic reasons for committing. And these are the backdrop against which young same-sex couples’ choices to formalise their relationships need to be understood.